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Are You Using Open Questions as Springboards to Creativity?

How to make feedback work better for you

Tequask via Wikimedia Commons
Pliable feedback?
Source: Tequask via Wikimedia Commons

We've all been there. Imagine it with me now. You've been working and thinking hard, and now that first version of your latest work or creative effort is done. Now it's time to put it out there to show it to your coworkers, or to your friends, or to the rest of your team. It's time for someone else to comment on your work, giving their impressions on what you've done. It's time to ask for feedback.

How does the process of asking for feedback on our drafts and our emergent ideas shape our creative process? And what, exactly, makes for "good" feedback?

Putting feedback to the test

Two researchers at business schools in Paris and in Boston recently teamed up to explore these questions –– but without ever asking participants to come to a lab for testing. Instead, they tapped into an already-existing online creative community of graphic designers. The designers were submitting drafts of T-shirt designs to a weekly T-Shirt competition, in which the winners receive a cash prize. Designers had the option of submitting drafts of their ideas to the online workshop, allowing web community members to view and comment on the drafts.

The researchers sent an invitation to participate in an online research survey to designers who had submitted at least three drafts to the workshop. The survey included questions about the level of curiosity, creativity, and demographic information about the designers. A total of 39 participants completed the surveys. The researchers then also obtained archival data about each of these participants' drafts, the feedback responses to each draft, and their final competition submission. Each participating designer submitted just over 7 drafts of their ideas, and received about 42 feedback comments, so the final data set included 1,662 feedback responses from the forum members for 274 drafts.

What did they find? The results showed three main findings on the effects of feedback.

(1) Compared with less curious design participants, highly curious designers asked for feedback using more open-ended sorts of questions, such as "Thoughts?" "What do you think?" And these open-ended questions attracted more feedback responses from the online community.

(2) Compared with feedback that was nearly entirely positive, or nearly entirely negative, feedback that contained a balanced and moderate amount of both positive and negative language –– that is, that appeared to be "emotionally ambivalent" –– tended to lead the designers to make more changes or revisions in their subsequent creative drafts.

(3) The relation between emotionally ambivalent feedback and changes in subsequent drafts was especially pronounced for designers who were highly curious. For designers low in curiosity, receiving ambivalent feedback had little effect on how much they subsequently altered their design.

So: asking for feedback worked best when people asked open-ended questions, and they seemed to really invite comments and criticism, without being defensive or asking for an overly simple response or advice. The more the designer left the door open for commentary, the more commentary they got, and the more they were able to benefit from that commentary. Where feedback especially faltered was when people asked for advice in a narrowly constricted way, leaving little play for the person offering the feedback.

What makes for good feedback?

In thinking about the cognitive and emotional processes that make for good feedback, it may be helpful for us to take a small detour, and think about another earlier research study on how feedback shaped creative processes. In this earlier lab-based experiment, a team of researchers at Stanford University compared two ways in which participants were given feedback.

The creative challenge here was to create a banner advertisement for a website for a particular client (a student-led design publication). Participants were given a design brief, and then introduced to a simple graphic design tool on which to create drafts of their website banner.

In the first group, participants were given feedback after each proposed web page design. The participants generated a design, received feedback, then generated a design, before again receiving feedback. This group, where feedback was given after each submission, one after the next, in a step-by-step series, was the "serial" feedback group.

This differed from the parallel feedback group. The parallel feedback group received the same amount of feedback overall, but the timing of the feedback differed. They submitted not one draft but two or three drafts together, and then received feedback on those drafts together.

Those participants who received feedback for two or three drafts together (rather than on each single draft in turn) produced website designs that were independently judged as more varied from each other, and as more effective. Experts also rated the parallel feedback designs as more creative.

Asking for feedback on a few or multiple ideas at a time can prevent us from over-investing in our initial ideas, keeping us flexible and searching. This can lead to a type of virtuous circle. Or, as we note in Innovating Minds (pp. 58–59), by using the technique of parallel (rather than serial) prototyping: "Ongoing openness and non-defensiveness then become part of a positive cycle of fluid, receptive, responsive interplay of ideas. We respond more positively and attentively to critiques and suggestions for improvement. Our emotional and intellectual investments then become and remain dedicated to the overarching creative process rather than to any one particular idea, approach, or instantiation."

Open-ended questions may offer us what the Paris and Boston-based researchers called "pliable guidance." Pliable guidance is "seeking or providing information about creative work in a way that balances the need for direction and the desire for exploration and open interpretation" (p. 2052). Pliable guidance is guidance or feedback that is flexible, non-rigid, permissive, and balanced between positivity and negativity. It gives us cognitive room and motivational impetus to continue to imaginatively grapple with our creative challenges, keeping us attuned to all of the novel possibilities that the revision process offers us.

Some questions to think about

  • What aspects of feedback "shut down" or tighten up your creative thinking, making it harder for you to see new possibilities beckoning? What sorts of feedback spur and inspire you to think freely, and to further explore and experiment, trying out this, that, and now that?
  • How might you change your own feedback-seeking activities –– the words and the emotional tone you use when asking others for comments, or the times and places you ask others for feedback –– to increase the odds that you will get (and also give) "pliable guidance"? Could you or your team try generating parallel drafts or offering two or more alternatives to increase how receptively everyone can respond to feedback? Should your feedback have more pluses and minuses, rather than veering strongly in one direction or the other?
  • How can you make feedback your trampoline space: a responsive interface that gently and naturally energizes and inspires you to try out a different move or a new combination of moves?


Dow, S. P., Glassco, A., Kass, J., Schwarz, M., Schwartz, D. L., & Klemmer, S. R. (2010). Parallel prototyping leads to better design results, more divergence, and increased self-efficacy. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 17, Article 18, 1–24.

Harrison, S. H., & Dossinger, K. (2017). Pliable guidance: A multilevel model of curiosity, feedback seeking, and feedback giving in creative work. Academy of Management Journal, 60, 2015–2072.

Koutstaal, W., & Binks, J. (2015). Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change. New York: Oxford University Press.